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Robert Wrigley delivers authoritative Mackey reading

Wearing a grey sportcoat, grey beard and blue jeans with a red bandana hidden in his pocket, Robert Wrigley gripped the podium with both hands like a grizzled ship captain on stormy waters. Swaying from foot to foot, he boomed out a series of engrossing poems, confidently guiding the audience through subject matters ranging from horse lips and corpses to the theft of the word “dappled” from Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Wrigley is this year’s Mackey Chair, a seven week teaching position in the English Department first introduced in 1988 by Robert Wrigley. Chris Fink, Professor and Mackey Chair coordinator, began the evening by discussing the program’s history and current context. Beloit alum Willard Mackey’47 established the position in honor of his departed wife Lois Wilson Mackey’45, an avid reader and Beloit College English Major. The program sought to help remedy what Willard Mackey saw as the stifling effect of liberal arts bureaucracy on creativity. Running through the impressive list of past Mackey Professors, which includes such writers as Ursula K. LeGuin, Raymond Carver and Billy Collins, Fink said Beloit’s literary heritage “rivals that of any college in the country” and dubbed Wrigley “one of America’s finest poets.” He concluded his introduction by thanking the Mackey family members who were in attendance and who help keep the program running.

English professor Francesca Abbate was then given the daunting task of introducing Robert Wrigley, who taught her when she was getting her masters degree at the University of Montana. Her speech moved deftly through the poet’s biography — born in East St. Louis, Illinois, he was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and currently resides in Idaho with his wife, novelist Kim Barnes. His poetry is “mysteriously comprehensible,” yet unafraid to “wrestle with the [big] questions that matter.” She also called him him a “master of syntax,” a distinction which proved well earned once he took the stage.

Wrigley’s stage presence is impressive, and his poetry even more so. After complimenting his class and ruminating on what it means to be a poet, he launched into “Kissing a Horse,” which I won’t attempt to explicate but will partially quote to give some idea of the poet’s impressive diction.

“He’d let me stroke/ his coarse chin whiskers and take/his soft meaty underlip/ in my hands, press my man’s carnivorous/ kiss to his grass-nipping upper half of one, just/so that I could smell/ the long way his breath had come from the rain/ and the sun, the lungs and the heart,/ from a world that meant no harm.”

Chris Fink then handed Wrigley a bottle of water, who proceeded to make a joke about the bottle being secretly filled with vodka. Not a particularly original joke, but Wrigley has the imposing air of a magical uncle who only visits once a year, and who you can’t help but be enraptured by (the closest celebrity comparison I can think of is 21st-century era Bill Murray). We all laughed.

My personal favorite was a lengthy poem called “Anatomy of Melancholy,” a narrative about one of the many odd summer jobs Wrigley had growing up. “I do have a good time with sentences in this poem” mused the poet, and then proceeded to calmly blow my mind semantically. Central to the “Anatomy of Melancholy” is Lucy, “short for Lucifer,” a constantly smoking, tattooed and mohawked boss with a Johnny Cashesque “Boy Named Sue” complex.  “A slender, flattening .22 slug/ through the forehead” ends his life, apparently at his request, and gets his unwashed friend Stump a murder charge in the process. After the poem was over, Wrigley said that one of his students had said “that’s a devil made me do it!” poem. “Well, yeah” Wrigley responded.

When the English Department went out to the bar, out of the numerous questions I could have asked Wrigley later that night I decided to ask him how he thought Scott Bierman had gotten so tan. I wish I too could claim that devilish interference made me waste such an opportunity, but if I’m being honest, it was probably the Long Island Iced Teas in my system.  

Wrigley will be teaching at Beloit for two more weeks before heading out to promote his newest poetry collection, Box, available in March. It will be the 10th book from the highly lauded poet, who has received such awards as the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Poet’s Prize and five Pushcart Prizes. He’s also received fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Idaho Commision on the Arts, and The Guggenheim Foundation, and has been published in such magazines as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. All of this to say that Beloit College is lucky to have had him, an opinion I’m sure all those who attended his reading in Moore Lounge share with me.

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